The Ballad of Bruce Lindsay
Two international film festivals in two major cities give Bruce Lindsay official validation that he’s not only an artist and lawyer, he’s also a filmmaker
“There are only two great mysteries a man faces: God and women. And some say God is just a good woman ….” Thus muses Paulo, the protagonist of Robert Bruce Lindsay’s film Under the Radar. Paulo is an autobiographical character written and portrayed by Lindsay—what one might call the author thinly veiled. Lindsay is a man of many hats: writer, poet, musician, painter, criminal defense attorney, and now: filmmaker, director, actor, editor. Boisterous yet self-deprecating, he looks more like a lawyer considering retirement than an up-and-coming film director. But though he’s saved lives on death row and stirred up controversy with his poetry and paintings, Under the Radar might be his strongest artistic achievement yet.
He recently received national validation, with his film accepted in May to both the Los Angeles International Independent Film Festival and to the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the world’s largest independent film festival.
A trial lawyer for 30 years, Lindsay specializes in death penalty cases, defending the vilified underdogs of the world. “Practicing law is an art,” he says, “just like everything in life is an art.” That aphorism certainly rings true when applied to Lindsay’s life.
As a painter, he generated controversy three years ago when a mural he painted on the exterior of the Reno Jazz Club included some very stylized naked female breasts. “They said it was obscene,” he says. “I personally never find a woman’s breasts to be obscene. To me, in order to be obscene, it must be duplicitous with a touch of evil. A woman’s breasts are rather innocuous.” This investigation into the nature of good and evil as found in the figure of the female breast is not unusual for Lindsay and his lifelong investigation of the “two great mysteries.”
Many of his paintings are big, bold, brightly colored canvases. One that hangs in his office has energetic bright red and yellow vertical lines above what appears to be snow-covered ground. “It really only works from 20 or 30 feet away,” he says. “Up close, it kind of falls apart … it’s called ‘Forest Fire in Tahoe.’” Then, excited to explain the joke, he adds, “And, as you know, forest fires don’t start in the snow.”
Lindsay performs spoken-word poetry and fronts the Poor Man’s Jazz Band, a loose congregation of local jazz musicians. His performing persona is not unlike a 1970s-era Tom Waits: a barroom hustler, a gruff-voiced beatnik telling tales of bad livers and broken hearts. He croons in “Parisian Wine” over melancholy piano, light percussion and boho sax:
The wine is easy, and the beer is free
But Spain is where I long to be
Or maybe back across the sea
If only I could escape from me.
His prose has a similar Henry Miller-like passion, a mixture of autobiography, political observation, religious inquiry and a fair amount of humor. He self-published a book of short stories, Nude. One story in the collection, “The War,” is a disarmingly forthcoming examination of his relationship with his father that manages to touch upon the Vietnam War and a one-night stand along the way.
Lindsay seems to have a gift for making convoluted, seemingly incongruent narratives work. The plot of Under the Radar is centered around Paulo ruminating on “God and women” while standing in a graveyard. He’s there, we learn, because his third wife has just died. What follows is a series of episodic flashbacks that have the fragmented, nonlinear quality of memory.
Lindsay calls it a dark comedy. “The guy marries his third wife, then he finds out she’s a heroin addict, then he finds out she’s gay. To me, that’s comedy.”
One of the central vignettes involves Paulo’s collegiate sweetheart, Sophie (Hope Lewis) and her husband, Franz (William Routsis), an estranged buddy of Paulo’s. Dark secrets from their shared past, including Weatherman-like acts of violent protest, have inspired a crazed assassin (Marty LaVassuer) who pursues Paulo throughout the movie, hot enough on his trail to find his coffee still warm. This adds a thriller dimension to a story otherwise based in middle-aged nostalgia.
The cast largely consists of Lindsay’s lawyer buddies. “Trial lawyers are the best natural actors,” he says. “If you can talk to a jury week after week, it’s no problem to act in front of the camera.” The film was shot in Reno, Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. Locals will recognize Reno haunts like Deux Gros Nez and The Zephyr as the setting for many of the central scenes.
The soundtrack is centered around a solo album that Poor Man’s Jazz Band pianist Lou DeSerio recorded 25 years before shooting began. Lindsay added vocals and brought in other local jazz musicians, including saxophonist Charles Song and trumpeter Tony Cataldo, to flesh out the sound.
Lindsay has been working on Under the Radar for more than two years. He screened the movie publicly at the Zephyr in November 2004 and again at the Green Room a year later. Reactions at both screenings were mixed, but Lindsay heeded the criticism and was able to sharpen up the film as a result. “You have to do test screenings for your friends to criticize the hell out of it,” he says. “It’s as essential as having an editor.” He pauses and reconsiders, no doubt reflecting on the defiantly personal nature of his writing. “Though writing is different. I’ve never had an editor and never will.”
Reaction to the third cut of the film has been positive. A Hollywood executive friend of Lindsay’s called it “the best amateur film I’ve ever seen.”
Much of the film is distinctly amateurish. The lighting is often bad, the acting unpolished. But these qualities actually seem to work in favor of the film. It’s a personal, autobiographical piece, much like the “documentaries” of director Ross McElwee. A fuller blown production would have compromised the intimacy the way a string section and sparkling production might ruin a good folk song. As it is, the film gives an unmitigated impression of its director. The amateur quality also reinforces the impression of fragmented, cluttered memory.
“I’m a writer first,” says Lindsay. “So what happened was I overwrote the thing.” Lindsay’s earlier cuts of the film were filled with long speeches and no action. It was all monologues and no dialogue, and he hadn’t fully learned to communicate visually. But in the final cut, the long speeches are broken up by the editing, done by Lindsay and technical editor Matthew Lahtinen. The strength of the film comes from its rhythm; the music, the dialogue and the editing all seem to move to the beat of a single polyrhythmic drummer. That drummer, of course, is Lindsay.
Lindsay has no qualms about the self-centered nature of his work. “All writing is autobiographical,” he says. “The greatest fiction is written by journalists, judges and biographers, the people that don’t think they’re writing fiction. And the greatest truth comes from people who think they’re writing fiction.”
Under the Radar is, in many ways, the apotheosis of Lindsay’s work. The songs in the film echo lines from the dialogue, much of which was taken from Lindsay’s short stories. “I can borrow from anything I’ve written,” he says with a laugh. “Art should have a message, the greatest message you’re capable of as a human being. If you make something and you haven’t been able to use everything you know, then you’ve failed.”